Knockout by K. A. Holt

Published by Chronicle Books

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Summary:  In these sequel to House Arrest, Levi, the sickly baby from the first book, is now in 7th grade.  Timothy, his older brother and the protagonist of book one, is applying to medical school.  Levi’s health has improved, but he still has some limitations, and his mother and brother tend to be overprotective.  His divorced dad is more laid-back and encourages Levi to try a sport. When Levi has a few sessions at the boxing gym, he proves to be a natural.  He ends up lying to both parents in order to continue pursuing the sport. In addition, his tendencies to be the class clown are pushing away his best friend, Tam, who is spending a lot of time with a new girl.  A medical crisis forces Levi to be honest with his friends and family, and to look at what is most important to him and what he can do to move in a new direction. 288 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Fans of K. A. Holt’s other books, as well as Kwame Alexander’s Booked, The Crossover, and Rebound will enjoy this fast-paced sports-themed novel in verse.  

Cons:  It took me a little while to warm up to Levi and get engaged in his story.

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In the Past by David Elliott, illustrated by Matthew Trueman

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  Twenty poems are illustrated with oversized paintings of a variety of prehistoric creatures from the trilobite (“So many of you./So long ago./So much above you./Little below.”) to Tyrannosaurus Rex.  (You thought/(if you could think)/you’d live forever./The great T. rex/would never die!/But even kings/are vanquished/when stars fall/from the sky.”).  Early mammals like the smilodon (a.k.a. Saber-tooth tiger) and mammoth are included.  Each illustration is labeled with the geological period when that animal lived.  Back matter includes a note from the author and information about the animals that inspired the poems. 48 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  Dinosaur fans will love the giant (and appropriately ferocious) illustrations as well as the brief, funny poems.

Cons:  Additional scientific information on each page would have made some of the poems more understandable.

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Rebound by Kwame Alexander

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  It’s the summer of 1988, and Chuck Bell is reeling from the death of his father.  His mom decides to send him to his grandparents’ in Washington, D.C. to help them both heal.  Chuck is not excited, and his grandfather’s work ethic doesn’t improve his outlook.  But his cousin Roxie, a star basketball player, starts to get him interested in the game, and before long, he’s leaving his beloved comic books behind to try to be a superhero on the court (there are several comics about Chuck throughout the book).  There’s a hint of romance for Chuck in the letters and phone calls he gets from his friend Crystal back home.  When Chuck’s other friend, Skinny, comes to D.C. for a visit, Chuck finds himself in a difficult situation with a tough older crowd, and eventually ends up in jail for unknowingly possessing marijuana.  That scare puts him on a path that readers of The Crossover will know led to a career in basketball and a love for the game that he will pass down to his sons Josh and Jordan.  416 pages: grades 5-8.

Pros:  Fans of the 2014 Newbery medalist The Crossover will not be disappointed by this novel-in-verse prequel that tells the story of 12-year-old Chuck Bell.  There’s a little fast-forwarding at the end, so readers learn of Chuck’s legacy to his two sons, as well as what happened to some of the characters from 1988.

Cons:  Middle school or elementary?  Fifth graders will definitely enjoy this, but be aware there is the who whole arrested for possession scene towards the end of the book.

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Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World by Susan Hood, illustrated by 13 extraordinary women

Published by HarperCollins

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Summary:  13 poems honor 14 girls and women (sisters Jacqueline and Eileen Nearne, secret agents during World War II, share a poem), with art for each one from a different children’s book illustrator.  Some of the subjects are better known (Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai) than others (Annette Kellerman, Angela Zhang).  Their fields range from art to science to sports, and each one is in a different form of poetry.  A brief biographical paragraph accompanies each poem, and a timeline at the beginning shows where each woman fits into history, from the early 1780’s to 2014.  Sources and additional resources are listed for each woman at the end.  40 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  Readers will be inspired to learn more about these girls and women, many of whom were well on their way to success in their teens.  The variety of illustrations celebrates women artists as well.

Cons: I was occasionally frustrated by only having a little information about someone I would have liked to learn about in greater depth.

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Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Walters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Published by Carolrhoda Books

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Summary:  Charles and Irene (alter egos for the two authors) are forced to work together on a poetry project in their fifth grade classroom.  Both are apprehensive; Charles is black and Irene is white; he is a non-stop talker while she is quiet and shy.  But through their poems, they find some common ground, like arguments with parents, church, reading, and difficulties with other kids in and out of school.  Race is a common theme, from Irene’s struggles with Shonda, a black girl she would like to befriend, to Charles’s bullying by white kids wearing cornrows and dreadlocks (“I’m confused: why do people who want to look like me hate me so much?”).  They bond over an author visit by Nikki Grimes, and by the time the project ends, their teacher is having to shush them (“Irene, I never thought I’d ever say this to you, but you need to be quiet”) when they talk too much during work time.  Authors’ and illustrators’ notes tell more about their collaboration.  40 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Poetry tells the story of two very different children who discover they have more in common than they have ever suspected in this celebration of friendship and the written word.

Cons:  Irene’s father reaches for a paddle when her two younger brothers get in trouble.  Also, not a con so much as a heads-up to be aware that references to Trayvon, Ferguson, Missouri, and the use of the n-word in rap music may raise some questions.

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The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds

Published by Orchard Books

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Summary:  Some people collect stamps or coins, but Jerome collects words.  He loves the sight and sound of them.  His collection consists of scrapbooks, in which his words are arranged by category (“Dreamy”, “Scientific”, “Action”).  One day, though, he slips, and his words go flying.  They’re all mixed together, and Jerome discovers he likes them even better that way.  Putting unlikely words together results in poetry; simple words like “sorry” and “thank you” are surprisingly powerful.  At last, Jerome gathers all his words into one big bag, and scatters them into the wind; then enjoys the sight of children running around gathering up his words.  The final endpapers offer this advice from the author: “Reach for your own words. Tell the world who you are and how you will make it better.”  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This could be used in a variety of ways in an ELA curriculum: vocabulary and poetry come to mind, and I’m sure there are others.

Cons:  The final scattering of words seems pretty messy.

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Seeing Into Tomorrow: Haiku by Richard Wright biography and illustrations by Nina Crews

Published by Millbrook Press

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Summary:  Twelve haiku poems by Richard Wright are illustrated with collage photographs of African American boys in nature.  Wright’s biography is divided into two parts: an introductory page at the beginning of the book and a more detailed three-page one at the end that concludes with an invitation to the reader to write their own haikus.  The poems are deceptively simple: easy for kids to understand (“So insistently/A crow caws in a spring field/That I want to look”), yet small masterpieces of word artistry. Includes a list for further reading.  32 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  A perfect introduction to both Richard Wright and the art of haiku, with beautiful photographic collages by Nina Crews (whom I just learned is the daughter of Caldecott illustrators Donald Crews and Ann Jonas), and an age-appropriate introduction to Wright’s life.

Cons:  No photo of Richard Wright.

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